‘I’d like to live to teach another day:’ Denver, Jeffco teachers react to reopening schools

A student at Denver’s DCIS Montbello asks her teacher a question in May 2019.
A student at Denver’s DCIS Montbello High School asks her teacher a question in May 2019. (Nathan W. Armes for Chalkbeat)

Sarah Thomas has done the math. 

With her underlying conditions, the high school math teacher figures her chances of surviving the coronavirus are not great.

“I can’t risk my life,” said Thomas, who teaches college-level courses at Denver’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College high school. “I’d like to live to teach another day.”

As school districts across Colorado have announced plans to return to in-person learning this fall, teachers have grown increasingly worried. Coronavirus cases in Colorado are on the rise, and teachers in the state’s two largest districts — Denver and Jeffco — said they’re concerned about keeping themselves and their students healthy.

Unlike doctors and nurses, teachers won’t be wearing hospital-grade protective gear. Unlike grocery store clerks, who interact with hundreds of people five minutes at a time, teachers and students will be together in a room for up to six hours a day. 

Even if teachers are able to keep kids 6 feet apart, and even if everyone washes their hands, doesn’t share pencils, and only takes their masks off to eat, emerging research shows coronavirus droplets can linger in the air in crowded, indoor places.

“I don’t know how I would react if I had to bury a kid — and they maybe caught COVID from me,” said Angie Anderson, who teaches economics, psychology, and a U.S. history course for English language learners at Bear Creek High School in the Denver suburb of Lakewood. “That would be the end of my career. I couldn’t go back after that.”

Late Friday afternoon, Denver walked back its plan to fully reopen school campuses. Instead, the district will start the school year remotely and gradually shift to in-person learning if health conditions improve, leaders said.

Previously, Denver Public Schools said its reopening plan was based on guidance from the Metro Denver Partnership for Health, a committee with members from six local public health agencies. The partnership released a paper in late June on COVID-19 strategies for schools. The first sentence: “Colorado children need to get back to school.” Jeffco Public Schools said it based its reopening plan on the same guidance.

The paper cited “growing data” on low COVID transmission rates among children, and the emotional and academic harms of keeping kids out of school. It said that with proper infection control and prevention measures, schools could provide a “comparably safe environment.”

Since then, critics in the public health world have said initial studies didn’t have enough information to draw firm conclusions about the risk of transmission in school settings. Adding to the concern, many reopening plans say that schools will follow health guidance to the extent that it’s feasible but cannot guarantee, for example, that students and teachers can maintain 6 feet of distancing.

District leaders say teachers with health concerns can ask for accommodations to work from home. But it’s not guaranteed those requests will be granted. Denver and Jeffco are allowing families to choose whether to send their children to school in person or have them learn remotely. The number of teachers allowed to work from home will partly depend on the number of families who choose the remote option, district leaders said.

Teachers feel their concerns are being ignored. Districts haven’t provided them any details of what school will look like next month (though some plans have leaked). Some teachers said emails to district leaders have gone unanswered.

The statewide teachers union has called on districts to include teachers in their planning. Some local unions are trying to negotiate conditions and expectations for returning to school in person, said Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association.

In Denver, teachers union President Tiffany Choi said the union has begun discussing with district leaders the possibility of negotiating a memorandum of understanding.

“Teachers are very, very worried,” she said. “The anxiety is extremely high that the conditions are not yet safe, and they don’t feel the district has created a plan that makes them feel safe.”

Denver Public Schools spokesperson Winna MacLaren said the district has invited union leadership to be involved in all of its planning meetings, and that much of the district’s planning “has been driven by teachers and principals.”

Not all teachers are opposed to returning in person. Katie Nethery is a special education teacher at a Denver high school where most students are from low-income families. She wants to go back to school. Remote learning didn’t work well for her, she said. 

“I love my kids and bond with them through physical interaction and seeing them face to face,” she said. “I had a really hard time making that same bond through remote learning.”

All of the students Nethery teaches are behind in reading, writing, or math. Some are also learning English as a second language. Working through those challenges takes persistence — and often adult guidance, she said. If parents are working, or if students themselves are working, she’s worried school will fall by the wayside if learning is remote.

But Nethery notes that she doesn’t have any underlying health conditions that would make catching COVID-19 more serious for her. Neither do her husband or son. If that were the case, she said, her calculus would likely be different.

Candice Steinke has two factors weighing on her: that she’s a single mom of two girls, one of whom has asthma as she does, and that she’s the sole income earner in her family and can’t afford to not work. After Jeffco Public Schools announced schools would reopen for in-person learning five days a week, Steinke began drawing up a will.

The announcement, she said, “knocked the wind out of me.”

Though Steinke is considering asking for a medical exemption from teaching in person, she said her condition — asthma — would put her lower on the list than teachers with more serious health risks. She also didn’t like remote learning. It was “crisis teaching,” she and others said, not the well planned lessons teachers usually provide.

But the solution to that problem isn’t rushing to reopen schools, teachers said. Instead, they said they wish districts would invest resources in improving online learning. Districts could have spent the summer training teachers on how to plan good virtual lessons, they said. Even if schools reopen in person, most districts have said they will switch to fully remote or some combination of remote and in-person if coronavirus cases spike.

Chris Christoff is expecting that to happen. Reopening schools is like “throwing a spark on a brush fire,” he said. Christoff teaches kindergarten and first grade in Denver, and he said he can’t imagine how social distancing would work in his classroom.

“You have to be able to hug kids,” Christoff said. “I can’t imagine on the first day a kindergartener crying and me from 6 feet away being like, ‘It’s OK! Your mom will be back!’”

Christoff is expecting 26 kids in his class this fall. Rather than teach them all in person, he said he’d prefer to focus on the students for whom connecting in person matters most.

For example, last spring, there was a boy in his class with a special education plan whose mom was an essential worker. The boy and his siblings were home during the day with a teenager who tried mightily to get all the kids online for school. But the family didn’t have home internet service. The hotspot device they got from the district was slow and glitchy.

“Give me the kids that can’t do remote, I’m fine with that,” Christoff said. “Then we can social distance. That’s truly limiting exposure to other people.”

Anderson, the teacher from Bear Creek High, said she still gets nervous for the first day of school. She never sleeps the night before, even after 22 years of teaching. This year, in addition to the regular first-day jitters, she said she imagines the prospect of teaching more than 100 students a day during a global pandemic will also be keeping her awake.

But when it comes down to it, she said, she’ll go back into the classroom if that’s her only choice. She suspects many other teachers will do the same.

“I’m going to do for my kids what I’m going to do for my kids, and people know that about us,” Anderson said. “But that doesn’t make it OK for them to take advantage of us.”

This story has been updated with Denver’s latest plan to start the school year remotely.

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